January 21, 2005


Sartre vs. Camus (Algis Valiunas, January 2005, Commentary)

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus would offer his own depiction of the freedom that comes of accepting the godless universe in which one happens to exist for a brief spell. His appeal to the singular adventure of a life well lived, without hope or fear of eternity, registered powerfully with Sartre. In a 6,000-word review of Camus’s The Stranger—about a man who drifts numbly through life until, condemned for murder, he finds happiness in “the benign indifference of the universe”—Sartre sketched an author, Camus, sounding very much like Sartre himself, especially the Sartre of the fiction Camus had himself reviewed.

Soon after their meeting, as Aronson tells it, an obviously thrilled Sartre offered Camus the chance to direct and play the lead in a touring production of his new play, No Exit (the best thing he ever wrote in any genre). Although the production never came off, the bond had been forged, and seemed made to last. The two men “prized living authentically,” Aronson writes, and authenticity could extend to, and survive, candor and even bluntness between them. During one night’s boozing, Sartre announced their order of intellectual rank: “I’m more intelligent than you, huh? More intelligent.” Camus agreed.

But if Sartre’s was by mutual consent the more imposing mind, Camus was the more impressive man, and both of them knew that as well. Simone de Beauvoir, the writer who was Sartre’s lifelong lover, but whose romance with him admitted all manner of extraneous erotic possibilities, told Camus that he could have her if he wanted her. He did not want her. Sartre, one suspects, found Camus’s refusal more disturbing than Beauvoir’s offer, especially as he happened to be toadishly ugly and Camus handsome and charming.

In addition to handsomeness and charm, Camus also had boldness and courage and integrity; these, along with intelligence, were the qualities Sartre most esteemed. Camus had proved his honor and his nerve in the Resistance against the occupying Nazis, when he edited the clandestine newspaper Combat, whose proud socialist banner read “From Resistance to Revolution.” Sartre for his part had served in the defeated French army, spent several months as a prisoner of war, and then returned to full-time literature.

Sartre was extremely productive during the war. But when he later spoke of himself as “a writer who resisted” rather than a member of the Resistance who wrote, he was implicitly comparing himself to the less intelligent but more impressive Camus. What is Literature?, the classic of literary theory that Sartre wrote just after the war, espouses writing that is itself vital with political commitment—that commitment being, naturally, to the radical Left. Aronson makes the case that the writer who, to Sartre’s mind, best fit his specifications was Camus: “This young man was already the person Sartre was trying to become: the engaged but not starry-eyed or ideological writer, at once ‘poet of freedom’ and political activist.”

Sartre’s enshrining of Camus bore a price, however. In Aronson’s judgment, it complicated the friendship, making Camus fear he would be thought of as Sartre’s creature rather than as his own man. The younger man began to feel that “he had to define himself in contrast to Sartre.”

There may be something to this, but Aronson makes too much of it. In fact, the principal source of the growing disagreement between the two was not psychological but philosophical and political. Already in a 1945 interview Camus contended that his understanding of the absurd had nothing to do with Sartrean existentialism. To be more precise, he was becoming disenchanted with the movement’s Marxist underpinnings, and was looking for a more accommodating basis for the idea of complete freedom of choice. As Camus saw it, if a man was really free, then he could make of himself anything at all; his actions ought not be circumscribed by the particular historical situation he found himself in, and especially ought not be dictated by some intellectual’s telling him he had to decide between behaving admirably like a revolutionary socialist or piggishly like a bourgeois.

By 1951, at any rate, the divergence had become an irreparable rupture. That was the year in which Camus published L’homme révolté, known in English as The Rebel but translated more accurately by Aronson as Man in Revolt. This book ranks with The Myth of Sisyphus and The Fall (1956) among Camus’s greatest works, and as one of the landmark titles of the last century. Unfortunately, Aronson finds it ideologically tendentious, and is not much use in helping one appreciate its excellence.

Man in Revolt indicts what Camus sees as the highest form of modern criminality: mass murder on behalf of noble ideas, and specifically on behalf of the idea of a perfected humanity in the manner of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. To Camus’s mind, the revolutionary nihilism exemplified by the Russian Revolution and by Nazism (though he barely touches upon the latter) is the supremely beguiling and supremely terrible theme of modern life. He traces its intellectual origins to the metaphysical ponderings of such figures as de Sade, Baudelaire, Hegel, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Lautréamont, as well as to the revolutionary zealotry of Saint-Just and Marx. To overthrow the divinely appointed natural order, to institute forever the humane and rational arrangements that will allow all to thrive as never before—these became the ends of the revolutionary, and anything at all was permitted in order to achieve them: starvation, slave labor, a bullet in the back of the skull. Camus wanted no part of this viciousness with its eyes wide open.

Sartre, not unexpectedly, loathed Man in Revolt, considered it a personal affront, and spearheaded the effort to discredit it in the pages of Les temps modernes (Modern Times), the hugely influential journal he edited. A Sartre disciple, Francis Jeanson, was enlisted to savage the book; when Camus wrote a hotly contemptuous letter to the editor, Sartre himself responded by turning up the heat in 10,000 vitriolic words, while Jeanson tossed off a 15,000-word justification of his review.

The tragedy of Camus, as of Orwell, is that the freedom they demand--to adhere to Judeo-Christian moral standards while denying their basis--requires an integrity that they had but rather few others do. Even by their "own" definition, the life well-lived is one that would please God, so their notion of human liberation is ultimately illusory.

Master and Pupil (Robert Royal, Crisis)

[A] touching relationship, long known to students of Camus's work, can be traced more fully now with the publication of Albert Camus & Jean Grenier: Correspondence 1932-1960 (University of Nebraska Press), translated by Jan F. Rigaud. These letters record a lifelong intellectual and spiritual friendship. Grenier began it by going out of his way as Camus's teacher to visit him in his poor home. Camus was encouraged by this show of respect to exert himself in order to become a worthy conversation partner. More concretely, Grenier convinced Camus's poor family to let him continue his education.

This had intellectual as well as personal dimensions. Grenier oversaw Camus's thesis on "Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism," a subject that attracted master and pupil alike for its intrinsic interest--a comparison of two high points of the human spirit, one Christian, one pagan--but also because it was a subject that had engaged a great ancient predecessor in the region, St. Augustine. Both were open to a larger horizon than was typical among contemporary intellectuals. Or as Camus was to formulate it later, Grenier "prevented me from being a humanist in the sense that it is understood today--I mean a man blinded by narrow certainties. ' Contrary to almost the whole of modern French thought, Camus believed that it was better to be "a good bourgeois than a bad intellectual or a mediocre writer," and he and Grenier strove to avoid the vanity and self-deception endemic to French intellectuals.

Both had intermittent attractions to Christianity, especially Catholicism, because, as Grenier put it, it reflected the principle that there is "no truth for man that is not incarnated." And Grenier could be merciless toward what he believed was a "dilettantism of despair" among many French intellectuals. But they were also put off by the harsh tone of many people in the French Church at the time, which seemed particularly offensive because of the Church's historical failings, as they saw it. Camus confesses at one point: "Catholic thought always seems bittersweet to me. It seduces me then offends me. Undoubtedly, I lack what is essential." That may be true, but it is also a sad commentary on Catholic history in France that these two good men, flawed and perhaps blinded as they may have been by certain modern intellectual currents, felt such ambivalence. The sense of guilt (personal and universal) in the later Camus is so palpable and profound that many people believe that had he not died at age 47, he would have eventually become a Christian. It1s a pious wish, but I have always thought it ignored certain invincible circumstances. These letters have not changed my mind.

But what a wonderful record of human honesty and affection they offer, especially for our time. Both had seen the results of murderous philosophies of human perfection, and Camus would be pilloried by the French intellectual establishment, particularly Jean-Paul Sartre, for his deep critique of Marxism in his L'Homme Revolte (The Rebel). In it, Camus argued that we have an obligation to rebel against injustice but must never allow that just impulse to become absolute revolution against the human condition. Because when we do, we turn into perpetrators of injustices worse than those we seek to eliminate. Or as he put it in the opening sentence of that work, a line that could almost serve as a motto for his and Grenier's work in the face of so much that was--and is--simply mad among French intellectuals: "There are crimes of passion and crimes of logic."

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 21, 2005 8:56 AM

My favorite Sartre book is (I think this is the correct title), In Seach of a Method, where Sartre attempts feebily to reconcile his radical existentialist view of our free will, with his equally radical Marxist deterministic view of man.

It has to be read to be believed.

Truly a work of comic genius.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 21, 2005 11:11 AM

Sartre vs. Camus -- two pompous French philosophers bloviating at each other. Looks like a lose, lose proposition to me.

Posted by: Mike Morley at January 21, 2005 1:13 PM